Bennington at the end of the 18th century was well suited for Vermonts iron industry. The growing post-Revolutionary War population was one of the largest in Vermont, offering a strong labor source and local market for products such as potash kettles, plows, stoves, fireplaces and tools. Benningtons economic orientation to the Hudson River Valley ports of Albany (40 miles) and Troy (33 miles), New York provided an open market that was unavailable to the rest of land-locked Vermont. Furthermore, two existing natural ore beds had been identified in an 1796 state survey by James Whitelaw.
Following the 1785 establishment of Vermonts first blast furnace and forge in Fair Haven, small scale iron works began to open throughout the state, particularly in Rutland County. The first forge in Bennington opened in 1786, followed by the first blast furnace in an area east of the center of Bennington known as the Lyons district. The ore that supplied this furnace came from neighboring Shaftsbury. Around 1803, just as this ore supply was exhausted, a new supply was discovered north of the Roaring Branch River about 1.25 miles east of East Bennington by Stephen Dewey.
In 1804, Moses Sage abandoned his furnace at the Lyons district and joined a partnership with Giles Olin to build an iron smelting furnace near the new ore beds at what was later known as Furnace Grove. In 1810, the Furnace Grove operation contained one of the eight blast furnaces then built in Vermont. Another of the states blast furnaces as well as a forge were in operation in nearby Woodford Hollow. The town roads were forced to expand to the eastern side of Bennington to accommodate their active businesses.
National events such as the Embargo Act of 1807, the War of 1812, and the Tariffs Acts starting in 1816 had a significant effect on the iron industry in Vermont. Formerly supplying local needs, iron operations were now forced to contend with the costs of transporting iron to markets much farther away. Small operations would need to expand in order to make business profitable. Consequently, in the initial years, the ownership of Furnace Grove changed hands several time. In 1811, Moses Sage sold out to Thomas Trenor, who in turn sold out to Seth Hunt in 1820/21. In 1822, Seth Hunt razed the original stacks and built the East Furnace (#2). Today, the East Furnace is significant as the oldest blast furnace still standing in Vermont. Finally, in 1822, Hunt and the Woodford iron works sold out to wealthy New Yorkers Charles Hammond and Nathan Leavenworth. What was a small, local business for the last decade became the Bennington Iron Company in 1822, a significant operation by Vermont standards.
The Bennington Iron Company used the existing blast furnace to produce pig iron and erected a second blast furnace, the West Furnace (#4) c.1826 to increase production. A smaller cupola furnace known as the Pup Furnace (#3) was built in 1824 to further refine the iron to be cast into clothiers and hatters plates, cauldrons, fire-dogs, box and cooking stoves, plow points, gudgeons, and cotton and woolen machinery. At its peak in 1831, the Bennington Iron Company produced 7 tons of pig iron daily, consumed over 500,000 bushels of charcoal annually, employed 150-200 men who lived in a boarding house on the property, and demanded the services of 40 to 50 teams of horses. By 1840, Furnace Grove had 3 of Vermonts 26 furnaces. A company store (#1) supplied all the material needs of the workers.
Furnace Grove is significant for its contribution to the growth and development of the community of Bennington. An editorial in the Vermont Gazette of 1823 commends the Bennington Iron Company:
The productive labor it puts in motion, the number of workmen it employs in its various branches and the number of human beings it makes profitable to society and to which it affords an honest and honorable means of subsistence are some of the causes why we rejoice in its success, and why we feel that this community should befriend and favor the enterprising individuals who have invested capital in so important an establishment.
Though the East and West Furnaces (#2, #4) have partially collapsed, they are significant because of the information they reveal about 19th century iron making. The location below a high embankment, and near a source of fast running high water, ore mines, and a plentiful supply of wood were critical to daily operations. The water was diverted from the river and channeled via a canal over a waterwheel in the embankment. The waterwheel in turn powered huge bellows that kept the fire in furnace burning. The ore from the nearby mines, after being washed in the river, was mixed in careful proportions with charcoal (made from wood harvested and sawed on the surrounding lands) and limestone (also gathered locally), carted up the embankment and over a bridge, and dumped into the charge hole at the top of the stack. After smoldering at very high temperatures, the limestone bonded with impurities in the ore and the heavier iron would sink to the bottom. Workers drained the glassy dark impurities, known as slag, off the mixture and out a taphole. After time, the iron would be drawn out of a lower taphole into a central trough or sow with attached individual units, or pigs (hence the name pig iron).
The East and West Furnaces (#2, #4) reveal important information about iron stack construction of the early 19th century. Both have two base arches, one in which air was blasted into the furnace and the other which was used to work the hearth. The exposed insides of the West Furnace (#4) reveal some of the iron structural supports and three distinct inner design details: the firebrick bosh lining inside of which the fire burned, and the supportive stone outside walls, and the protective rock fill between the two layers. Also visible is a bustle pipe or a tuyere, one of a several pipes inside the furnace that were part of a system that used the heat produced by the furnace to the preheat the blast of air from the bellows before it entered the fire. The West Furnace is nationally significant because it was one of the earliest, if not the first, hotblast systems in the country. The hotblast system became an industry standard. Today, the East and West Furnaces are two of six blast furnaces still standing in Vermont. The others include one restored furnace at Forest Dale (listed on the National Register of Historic Places) and three unrestored furnaces in E. Dorset, Pittsford, and Troy.
Three main buildings related to the ironworks still stand. The most predominant of these is the iron company managers house, known as the Leavenworth House (#9), a large, 1 3/4 story, eaves front Federal style house. This five bay by two bay, Georgian plan house sheathed with brick is significant as part of the larger trend of Federal style structures in construction throughout Vermont in the 1820s and beyond. The Leake Residence (#8), built for a Zadock Taft, an iron works manager who succeeded Leavenworth, stands to the southeast. Its expansions and modifications in the 1880s and 1930s, including the addition of a large porch, asymmetrical facade, and paired windows, are significant features of the Colonial Revival style. The Company Store (#1), a long Federal style structure, still stands at the entrance to the property. Though the cupola was removed and the clapboard siding has been replaced, the Company Store retains the simple floor plan and five bay window rhythm of the main facade, typical features of the Federal style. All of these buildings are significant as examples of early 19th century architecture common in much of Vermont.
A number of local and national factors forced the Bennington Iron Company to close in 1842. After the opening of the Champlain Canal in 1823 and the railroads in the 1840s, Vermont experienced a transition from supplying local needs to meeting national demands. Labor was increasingly more expensive and the prices of pig iron continued to fall in response to increased competition from other parts of Vermont, New York, Massachusetts, Pennsylvania and Virginia. In Vermont, hard magnetic ore contained impurities that affected the quality of cast iron, and long winters and the threat of spring floods forced iron furnaces to close down for several months of the year. Nationally, demands included tools for out west, tools for the stone industry and construction of railroad cars. Compared to other areas of the country, Vermont was no longer well suited for iron ore mining and processing. By the 1850s, Vermont moved away from the iron making industry to the iron working industry.
While the coming of the railroads in part ended the first phase of Furnace Grove, they also mark the beginning of the next phase. In 1852, the first railway was laid from Troy, New York, to Bennington, Vermont, opening the Green Mountains to summer visitors from the city. A Bennington and Rutland Railroad publication actively promoted Vermont as a region of charming scenery and pure air, and described Bennington as the most desirable summer home in southern Vermont.
In 1858, Furnace Grove was purchased by one of its wealthy creditors from Troy, Captain Hamilton L. Shields. Over the next fifty years, Captain Shields and his family occupied Furnace Grove every summer. Significant changes were made to the Leavenworth House (#9) and it was renamed The Captains House, including the installation of the decorative eyebrow window in the front facing roof slope and additions on the rear. The Leake Residence (#8) was expanded to suit the tastes of a late-19th century family. The Wigwam, a small cottage built in 1885, was greatly enlarged in the Queen Anne style to become Thirteen Gables (#15). These balloon frame additions are testament to recent developments in architectural construction. All three buildings reflect a statewide and national trend to build large distinguished homes that reflect the affluence and refined taste of the occupants. As such, these homes are significant for their representation of late 19th century architectural ideas. The Pup Furnace (#3) collapsed in 1890 and the stones were used to construct the fences that define the property boundaries and drives. Gardens and ponds were added and lawns maintained. Like many of their friends who summered in Old Bennington and other nearby places such as the Park-McCullough House, the Shields family were part of a trend of city people escaping the heat, dirt and disease of the city to enjoy the beauty of Vermont in grand Victorian-era summer dwellings.
At the same time that Vermont experienced an influx of summer people, it also saw a rise in the number of gentleman farmers. Wealth earned as a result of industrialization was brought to Vermont with men who sought a more peaceful, healthful life. Such wealth created large estates like and Billings Farms in Woodstock in the 1870s (National Historic Landmark, listed 1972) and Shelburne Farms in Shelburne in the 1880s (listed in the National Register of Historic Places, 1980). Smaller gentlemans farms, also created by outside wealth, such as Brook Farm in Cavendish (listed in the National Register July 22, 1993) and Mountain View Stock Farm in Benson (listed in the National Register December 30, 1989) were more common.
Over the course of the next fifty years, the Shields summer property expanded to include a diverse working farm managed by a year-round local farm manager. Enough dairy, eggs and meat products were produced to feed the Captains growing family. Three barns were built to provide shelter for the work horses, cows, pigs and chickens (#10, #12, #13). By 1900, a Guernsey herd was started on the farm and a flat wooden silo was added to one of the barns (#13) to store feed. Sheds (#1a, #17, #18) were constructed throughout the property to house agricultural and other equipment. All the barns standing today on the property are significant for their connection to the use of Furnace Grove as a small-scale gentlemans farm.
The rocky hillside and limited pastureland of Furnace Grove, however, is not ideally suited to large-scale farming. In his enthusiasm for agriculture, Seymour Van Santvoord (Captain Shields son-in-law) abandoned the farm at Furnace Grove in 1914 for the larger pastures of Shadowbrook Farm (Vermont Historic Sites and Structure Survey #0202-108) on the other side of Bennington. The remaining descendants of Captain Shields would continue raising chickens into the 1960s and heifers into the 1990s at Furnace Grove, but no longer was it a recreational pastime; instead, it became a way of making a living.
Furnace Grove remains as testament to its significance as a part of Vermonts early iron industry, and as part of the trend of affluent city people creating summer homes and small-scale gentlemens farm in Vermont. The furnaces, houses, barns and landscape not only reflect elements of each era but also reveal important changes that happened over time.
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